Leaving a Legacy of Protected Lands

by Terrie Cooper, Door County Land Trust senior land-protection manager

It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic childhood than mine, growing up in Ellison Bay in the 1970s. I knew I was living in a precious and sacred place. Hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and riding horses along the rustic trails that traversed the county created a sense of freedom and adventure – as well as a naïve belief that these wild and open places would always be here, unchanged forever. 

Soon, though, “No Trespassing” signs appeared across the trails, and with them came a sense of loss. This loss ignited a passion and a determination as an adult to return home and give back to this place I love.

I know my experience is not unique. Many who live or frequently vacation in Door County have a similar story of how a place they loved, or a view they treasured and thought would be there forever, has changed. 

My greatest concern is how this narrow, fragile peninsula and its islands can retain their rural character when they lie just hours north of the third most densely populated region in the country. As more and more people discover Door County, the demand for housing and vacation accommodations further threatens our wild and open spaces. 

Consider that thousands of acres of open lands throughout the county are zoned with 1.5-, 3.5-, 5- and 10-acre lot sizes, meaning that thousands of additional housing units could still be built in spaces along county corridors that many of us assume will always be open. But there is a wide variety of tools beyond municipal zoning that private landowners and the community can use to leave a legacy of protected lands.

My opportunity to give back to Door County arrived in 1999 – after 15 years spent working at nature centers throughout Wisconsin and founding a Land Trust in Sheboygan – when I returned home to become the Door County Land Trust’s second staff member. I’ve been fortunate to play a part in growing our protected lands from 800 protected acres in 1999 to more than 9,000 acres today. From the tip of Washington Island to Southern Door, 14 Nature Preserves and 22 Natural Areas have been created by the Land Trust. 

With the protection of scenic views and wildlife habitat in places such as the Land Trust’s Grand View Preserve in Ellison Bay and the Ship Canal Preserve, they will be treasured for generations to come. The Land Trust has also forever protected miles of scenic open space, farms and forests thanks to conservation easements with private landowners. 

Beyond the Land Trust, we owe much gratitude to the environmental visionaries who created the Department of Natural Resources’ state park and wildlife areas, Door County parks and those operated by local units of government, The Ridges Sanctuary, the Door County Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Toft Point, The Clearing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuges and Crossroads at Big Creek. Through their commitment to shape the environmental future of Door County, together we have created a legacy of protected lands and lakeshore. 

But all told, this only accounts for only 10% of Door County’s lands. Compare that to 40% of the land on Nantucket Island and 38% of Cape Cod. 

As the rate of change in Door County continues to gain speed, so must the amount of land we set aside for conservation and protection to ensure that future generations will inherit the open and wild spaces we have been so fortunate to know and love. As a community, we must also continue to create sustainable solutions to balance economic growth and affordable housing as we protect area lands and waters, which are vital to the health of Door County. 

People around the world are working together to leave a legacy of protected lands, and we are incredibly fortunate that so many who came before us did so much to preserve the natural beauty of this special place. The question ahead is whether we will keep building on that work in the face of so much change or will we lose momentum. 

Visit to learn how you can help preserve the land you love.